Key Signatures

A song may have a note area that you're able to sing or play well. You might choose a particular Key, that's easier for you to perform all the tones, both high and low. Key Signatures appear before the time signature in sheet music.

Sharp (#) and Flat (b) symbols are populated on the staff in a certain order (that we'll learn soon). The number of symbols together represent a Key - a tonal area, or range, of a song.

Many Keys emerge, simply by adding an additional sharp or flat, on the staff's lines and spaces. The symbols will be either only sharps, or only flats, never mixed. The total number of sharp or flat symbols is seven. None, or all seven symbols may fill a staff.

Skip to Flats

Sharps


No sharps or flats on the staff makes the Key named 'C'. So we now have the Key Signature for 'C' memorized. Next, to change Keys, we need an Order, on which line or space, to add Sharps. Just memorize this letter sequence :

F C G D A E B

Use this acronym for memorization :
Fat Cats Go Down Alleys Eating Birds

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Those are all seven sharps. How do sharps relate to Keys? When we add a sharp on the staff, that same note will be played a half step higher every time it appears in the song. Whatever sharp shows up on the staff, that note gets sharped every time it's played, throughout a song.


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How do we know the name of the Key? We'll focus on Major Keys : The last sharp you place on the staff (in Order FCGDAEB) - raise it a half step to get the Name of the Key. Place one sharp on the staff, F#. Raise it a half step, to G, and G Major is our Key's name. So a song will follow the G scale notes, with F sharped every time it appears :

G A B C D E F# G

fcsharp.png

Next, add two sharps, F#, C#. Since the last sharp added was C#, raise it a half step to get the Name of the Key, D Major. The D Major Scale has two sharps, F#, C#. To create a song in this key, just rearrange the D scale notes into phrases that sound good to you. Also, the chords will use triads within the D Major Key :

D E F# G A B C# D

"Also, when numerous sharps or flats appear on the staff, start to think which notes are natural."

Have you noticed that the last sharp is always the Major Scale's seventh note? Notice how sharps manipulate certain notes, to produce the Major Scale Sound (based on whatever root note).

The sharped seventh is the 'leading tone'. This is because it leads to the root, by being the 2nd to last note in the scale. Also, the 7th Sounds like it wants to resolve to the Root note, to get back 'home'. Ain't it always about the sound? :)

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Flats


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The Order of Flats placed on the staff is the opposite of sharps' order :

B E A D G C F

Memorize this Order of Flats with :
BEAD -GCF (spelling bead, then gcf)


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No flats on the staff is, of course, the Key of C Major. One flat (Bb) on the staff is F Major. Simply memorize the Keys of C and F :

C D E F G A B C
F G A Bb C D E F

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And now, to find the Key Name from Flats :

Use the second to last flat that you added. That flat is the name of the Key. If we add two flats, Bb, Eb, the second to last flat is Bb. This becomes the Key Name, Bb. In this Key, every B and E that appears in the song will be lowered a half step (notice the double Bb) :

Bb C D Eb F G A Bb

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Add one more flat on the staff, Bb, Eb, Ab. Here, the second to last flat is Eb. The Key Name is now Eb, with every BEA notes flatted, or lowered a half step. The name of the key helps find the Root note, toward which the other notes in the key resolve :

Eb F G Ab Bb C D Eb

Another Way to Add Flats

Notice that every added flat lands on the 4th scale note, and that Root (1st note) is flat (except for the key of F). So for scale memorization, we already know which two notes are flat, 1st and 4th. Then we may back up from the 4th note, and use the order of flats to find the other flat scale notes :

Ab Bb C Db Eb F G Ab
  • Ab = Root
  • Db = 4th note
  • reverse flat order (BEADGCF) = Db Ab Eb Bb=
  • 4th, root, Eb Bb

This covers all the flats of the Ab Major Scale.


Circle of Fifths

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The Circle of Fifths helps to see a Key's number of Flats or Sharps. We just have to remember the Order that flats or sharps are placed on the staff.

Going around the circle from top, clockwise (right side), each root note is five half steps below the previous one (C,G,D...). From top, counterclockwise (left side), each root note is five half steps above the previous one (C,F,Bb). This isn't as important as knowing the number of flats or sharps for that root.

Musicians are familiar with quickly figuring the Key from its Signature, especially seeing the last sharp, or second to last flat. Regardless of Major or minor Keys, the Sharps and Flat's Order remains the same. Likewise, the circle of fifths above, helps to find a minor key's root.

Finally, a Key Signature can change in the middle of Sheet Music. This probably means the background chords have a new tonal center, that creates a new feel. Also, when numerous sharps or flats appear on the staff, start to think which notes are natural. There are fewer to remember as you play the song. Next, raise or lower a half step, every note except the naturals.

An interesting practice technique would be to play a written song in a key more comfortable for you, or to transpose it. You may keep your easier key in mind, while reading the written key. The intervals between the written notes are cues to sharp, flat, or naturalize your transposed song. Have fun with music!

The next page is about Clefs, an interesting way to visualize the highest and lowest sounds.

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